BY KRISSI HUMBARD — Hyattsville’s city election is less than a week away and the city council races are heating up. A number of times on social media, residents have called for civility and an end to the negative rhetoric surrounding the election; in particular, the “name-calling” and “mud-slinging,” as one resident put it, in the Ward 1 race.
A number of issues have come up in this campaign season, including questions about campaign finance reports, accusations of questionable conduct or character, allegations of bullying, and claims of false accusations and misinformation.
The candidates’ second campaign finance report was due Tuesday, April 25. Candidates were more prompt this time, with just two candidates filing after the deadline had passed (in contrast with the initial report, in which half filed after the deadline). Talib Karim and Ian Herron, both candidates for Ward 1, filed their second campaign finance report after the 5 p.m. deadline. Under campaign laws, candidates have seven days from receipt of a notice of late filing to file their report before it is considered overdue. Penalties for late filing apply only to the final campaign report and include not being seated or sworn as an elected official and not receiving a salary until all reports required by the board are filed, possible fine of up to $200, or possible misdemeanor.
Explaining his reasons for raising the “important” issue of campaign finance laws, Councilmember Patrick Paschall (Ward 3) said at the special council meeting Wednesday, April 26, “We have campaign finance laws for a reason. And when half the candidates, like 50 percent of the candidates, fail to comply with local election law, I think that’s something the public should know about.”
When candidates miss a filing deadline, “it doesn’t give an opportunity for the voters to know whether or not there are actual violations before election day,” Paschall added.
Councilmember Edouard Haba (Ward 4) noted that transparency is important but added, “I don’t think that not meeting a filing deadline, alone, has any major weight on a candidate’s commitment to transparency. There are life constraints that we can’t predict nor control. [What] should be alarming is the absolute failure to submit said reports. In the event a candidate fails to comply, our elections code has provisions that address that.”
The Ethics Commission, which looks over the campaign finance reports to make sure candidates are in accordance with the election laws, met Wednesday, April 26. It was the first time the group was able to go through the initial reports from the candidates who filed after deadline, as well as all of the second reports. Commission members tirelessly combed through each report, checking for inconsistencies and making sure all the requirements were met. All candidates but one (Edouard Haba, Ward 4) were sent a letter from the commission asking for edits or updates to their reports; some were clerical issues such as including all contributions and expenditures in a cumulative list (instead of just submitting new entries) or listing all full postal addresses of campaign contributors, to larger issues such as reconciling bank accounts or potential contributions from businesses, which are prohibited under the campaign law. One candidate, Karim, has not submitted any receipts for his campaign expenditures, which is required under the City Election Code.
All campaign contributions and expenditures are self-reported; the Ethics Commission relies on receipts to show expenditures but the group really has no way to check campaign donations. Proof of donations is not required under election law.
The Hyattsville Life & Times reached out to all candidates, asking the same questions about the role of campaign finance reports, missing deadlines, and perceptions of commitment and transparency. Eight candidates responded by press time: Ward 1 candidates Bart Lawrence and Talib Karim, Ward 3 candidates Vinni Anandham and Carrianna Suiter, Ward 4 candidate Edouard Haba, and Ward 5 candidates Derrika Durant, Erica Spell and Ben Zeitler.
All candidates who responded agreed that following campaign laws was important for transparency.
Spell said, “[Campaign finance reports] let the public know who is supporting the candidate, the amount of money and some degree of the effort that went into earning and securing votes.”
Haba said campaign finance reports “constitute an important piece for transparency in our democratic system. They enable us to know where the funds are coming from and how they’re spent.”
Durant, who is funding her campaign herself, said, “Campaign finance reports, particularly campaign contributions, can allow voters to determine a candidate’s susceptibility to adverse external influences.” She stated that is the reason she is funding the campaign herself.
Echoing the importance of campaign laws, Suiter said, “Particularly in this municipal election where the reporting times are so close to early voting days, it’s important that voters have time to review and digest the information. Not submitting a report in a timely manner does a disservice to voters in our community.”
Stating her belief in the importance of punctuality, but also realizing that life happens, Anandham said, “I don’t think people should be penalized for [filing after deadline] — only if they have surpassed the deadline for days and deliberately been unresponsive.”
Acknowledging their importance, Lawrence asked, “If a candidate can’t transparently account for campaign finances, how can we trust a candidate to account for the city’s finances?”
Candidates had different views when asked about the perceptions of commitment and transparency, and the questions some residents have about whether voters can trust candidates who missed a filing deadline to follow the law if elected.
“If a candidate fails to submit a campaign finance report on time, it is absolutely a reflection of their ability to uphold rules and regulations,” Spell said. “I believe it is a reflection of their commitment and just how serious they take the political process.”
Calling it an “important issue for voters to consider,” Suiter said, “it’s also important to consider intent. Is a candidate trying to withhold information to deceive, or is it an honest mistake? That’s up to the voters to decide. We’re all human and mistakes do happen, especially for first-time candidates. I would hope that, if elected, those candidates would grow in their roles and stay true to their duties in office.”
Citing different educational backgrounds, Durant said, “It is probable that citizens without political or legal experience will make at least one mistake on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, we do tend to hold elected officials to a higher standard. If a candidate for office is displaying unethical practices/ behavior then there is an even higher possibility that they will do the same while in office. That said, a simple mistake should not determine whether a candidate will be trustworthy while in office.”
Lawrence took a bit of a firmer stance: “A neighbor recently said to me, ‘You judge a tree by the fruit it bears.’ If a candidate willfully flaunts their disregard for the law during a campaign, it’s reasonable to assume that the behavior would continue in office.”
Haba sought to clarify the City Election Code, saying, “People should not have a narrow reading of the law. In the present context … I view the attempt to reduce our campaign finance laws to single deadline as a selective and narrow reading of said laws.”
Zeitler said, “Timely and accurate campaign finance reports are critical to ensuring transparency in our elections. Voters should look to compliance with campaign finance laws as a first test of a candidate’s commitment to transparency. The City of Hyattsville recently updated its Election Code to bolster our shared commitment to disclosure so voters can make informed decisions when casting ballots. The filing deadlines required by our Election Code are straightforward and should be followed by candidates serious about committing to city service.”
Karim said, “As a lawyer, I am committed to complying with our city’s campaign rules and laws, even those that are not fair.” Calling the new rules “confusing,” he added, “The new campaign rules were adopted just weeks before the 2017 campaign season began and were far different from those in operation when I ran in 2015.”
The City Election Code was updated in January. Changes to the charter include qualifications to vote and to make explicit the authority of the Board of Supervisors of Elections, to provide for a Supplemental Voting Registry, to add a list of definitions and duties so as to clarify the elections law, to specify minimum times for the polls to be open, to change Absentee voting to Vote-By-Mail, to adjust campaign finance reporting deadlines to reflect early voting dates, to specify certain rules, and regulations and limitations regarding campaign finance, and to outline a complaint procedure for election law violations. The city held two candidate information sessions, on March 6 and March 26, to discuss the changed filing and contribution rules.
CORRECTION*: What appeared to be business donations on Spell’s initial filing were “donations from friends who used their business PayPal accounts and simply weren’t familiar with campaign finance rules,” she said. Spell says she refunded the two donations, from Intentional Love and A New Image Salon, prior to the initial report and notification from the Ethics Commission. “I refunded the funds as a result of my own review of my finances prior to submission and receipt of the letter,” she said. The refunds are reflected in Spell’s initial report. *The story originally stated that Spell returned the donations after receiving a letter from the Ethics Commission.
One candidate still appears to have accepted donations from businesses. The commission was unable to look at Karim’s initial report until their meeting Wednesday, April 26, and noted questionable donations in their letter to him, citing particularly donations from Friends of Fazlul Kabir and The Law Offices of Bradley Thomas.
When asked about these donations, Karim replied, “As soon as the receipts for all my campaign expenditures are finalized and scanned, they will be shared with the commission. If any funds received by my campaign did not comply with the new rules, you can count on us to return them.”
Some residents have had questions about campaign expenditures. There is no campaign law in the City Election Code dictating what candidates can and cannot spend money on. Most of the expenditures listed by the candidates include things like campaign signs, voter registration lists, office supplies or campaign mailing supplies. Karim has also listed items such as meeting spaces; travel expenses such as gas, a car wash, parking cost and Uber rides; and an AT&T phone bill as campaign expenditures.
“Look at most of the expenses, and they aren’t the usual expenses,” Ethics Commission member Christopher Arthur said while looking through the reports.
When asked about the expenses, Karim defended them saying, “What is clear is that it has taken a lot of money to mount a serious challenge against the incumbent and his clique who currently control our City Hall. Further, given the bullying by the incumbent’s supporters, few of my neighbors were comfortable enough to make donations. I am, however, grateful that local business owners as well as family, friends, and colleagues who live outside of Hyattsville were willing to help us raise more money than the other Ward 1 candidates in order to bring a new voice to City Hall. Securing those contributions required expenditures from my campaign that others apparently did not have to incur.”
Early voting continues at Magruder Park Saturday, April 29 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Vote-By-Mail ballots are still available for pick up at the Hyattsville Municipal Building. Those ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on May 2. Election Day is May 2; polls are open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. The polling location for Ward 1 is the City Municipal Building, at 4310 Gallatin St., on the first floor; the polling location for Ward 2 is the Magruder Park Recreation Center, rear multipurpose room, at 3911 Hamilton St.; the polling location for Ward 3 is the sanctuary room at University Christian Church, 6800 Adelphi Rd.; the polling location for Ward 4 is St. Matthew’s Episcopal/Anglican Church, 5901 36th Ave.; and the polling location for Ward 5 is the front multipurpose room of the Magruder Park Recreation Center, 3911 Hamilton St. More information can be found in the city’s election guide.